The 1962 War : Fighting in the Namkachu Region
Lt Gen (Retd) Ravi Eipe
My most significant impression of this battle, is the quality of the Indian soldier. He is a very unique person, who is willing to follow his officer without question. In 1962, we had to endure such poor conditions, innumerable privations, inadequacies, and shortages. His loyalty, dedication, and willingness to do his duty and go beyond that are truly remarkable.
We were fighting in the Namkachu region, which was at an altitude of about 12,500 feet. We had to make a six-day foot march from Tawang to approach it. In the process, we had to cross the Sang Dar ridge, which is about 16,000 feet. The terrain was extremely difficult. There were some mule tracks, nothing beyond that.
The roads in those days came up to Tawang. That too, it was a one-tonne-in-patches kind of track. Logistically, we were in a very difficult area where the troops had to sustain themselves on man pack. That is, you had with you whatever you carried on your back. And as far as replenishments were concerned, we were getting rations air-dropped. But because of the altitude and the closeness to the border, the aircraft were dropping at heights that tend to disperse the drops.
So it was extremely difficult to collect the rations. Many of the items, even if dropped, would get caught in ravines and the troops never got what they required even if it was basic rations. Sometimes, for example, we just could not get salt. Sugar was not there. This kind of logistical problem put the troops to a lot of privation. But in spite of that, our troops displayed one great thing, and that was that they could sustain themselves on very little, and even be very cheerful with these hardships.
Secondly, because were on man-pack basis when we had to make our defences there, we did not have the proper tools and equipment, and had to rely on very small picks and shovels that a man carries on his back, which we call tools entrenching. That’s a very inefficient way of digging anything. If you wanted to cut a tree in those days, there was nothing like an electric saw, like you see in the movies now. It was only with a dha or an axe that you felled trees.
In addition to all these difficulties, the weather was hard. We did not have snow clothing, but were just sustaining ourselves at those incredible altitudes with angola shirts, that is, heavy mazari shirts with a jersey each. Every man had one blanket with him. So we used to sleep in pairs. You had a blanket and what we would call a ground sheet each, that’s all. Even an officer had to sleep with someone else. That way, each pair of soldiers had two blankets over them.
These were some of the difficulties that the troops encountered. But the morale was high all the same. The people were very cheerful.
But the main reason why we got into this kind of situation was because of the overall assessment, which somehow was extremely faulty. Our perception of China was that it was a very benign country. It was an era of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’. The political thought process in the country precluded the possibility of China as a real threat.
Consequently, the preparations to undertake such an operation were very tardy. There was a mismatch between our perception of the enemy and what the enemy actually did. That is the reason why we got into so many problems. Otherwise, we would have gone into this war with better preparations: built roads and so on. That is the reason we were caught on the wrong foot.
At a national level, we did not read the enemy’s intentions properly. There are letters from Vallabhbhai Patel to the prime minister that are published that ratify all that I am saying: Mr Patel draws the attention of the government to the fact that the Chinese should not be underestimated. Their intentions are not as honourable as they appear. The nation should prepare for the worst. But unless you recognise that an adversary is an adversary, your preparations will never match the situation.
The other thing is that we were deployed in a fashion that could be criticised severely, from a military point of view. Our principle always is that you must occupy heights so that the enemy who wants to attack you climbs up to you, and then you have the advantage of height when you want to deal with him. But here, we were deployed along a nullah or river, so that our attackers got the advantage over us. He could come behind us and on top of us.
This happened because of the belief that the line we occupied was not a defensive line; it was just a political line temporarily to establish our claim to what we are holding. So, there again, we were not very realistic. When our battalion was attacked, we were not only on low ground, but also facing the enemy here with the attack coming from behind.
As far as China’s plans went, we saw the Chinese hand first when this post was established at Dola sometime in Sep 1962. It is now very clear that the Chinese intended for some time to launch an operation into India in the Tawang sector. The preparations started some time in 1960, two whole years before the actual war. It started with the gradual building of roads quite close to the border. This dispute was a godsend to them. If our post had not been established where it was, I am sure China would have found some other excuse to carry out the operation that they did.
It may be interesting to analyse why they did it. To understand that, one has to go back into the Chinese aspirations. They have always aspired to not only be a world power, but a superpower. In the 1950s, soon after they became independent, they had concluded that they must first become a regional power, and demonstrate their capability in the South Asian continent. This whole operation against India might have been an exercise to demonstrate China’s superiority in this region.
Secondly, the Chinese have always wanted to absorb Tibet into their mainstream. The escape of the Dalai Lama to India must have been a sore point for them. It must have reinforced their concern that India could be trouble for them. These two things prompted to start this operation. If you recall, after they reached the foothills, they unilaterally ceased fire and withdrew.
The spin-off of this reverse was that the armed forces went into raising new formations, revising our technologies, techniques, strategies, and weapon systems. This helped us meet the challenges of the wars of 1965 and 1971, and even Kargil recently. The reverse of 1962 spurred the Indian Army to pull itself up. Many countries remain unchallenged, so their armies remain untested. Our test came very early, and we could set our house in order.
As for the Chinese soldier, as I encountered him: the Chinese were considered lotus-eaters in the Second World War, and given unimportant roles by the allies. After the Chinese revolution, the People’s Liberation Army came into power and the party and army cadres became one and the same.
The men we encountered had already experienced fighting in Korea. But they were not a highly advanced army. They had better rifles than we had. But their techniques were typical of a people’s army. They followed the technique of using human waves and mass attacks. Political indoctrination was part of their training. The Chinese soldier was very dedicated, though not as modern as that of any advanced country. But he was a good infantryman, who could march long distances, live off the land, and adapt to all types of weather. I would rate him on a par with our men.
We saw the Chinese soldiers eyeball to eyeball, across a narrow nullah. They wore gray unisex trousers and long coats, with red flashes on their shoulders. They were tall and fit.
I had 95 men under me; I was a Captain. The whole battalion had 513 men of all ranks in the Namkachu area. Of these, 282 were killed. Of my 95, only 14, including I, survived! All this on just one day! The enemy captured another 171.
The battle on that day went thus: we woke up and occupied our defences at 5.15am, just before first light. Fifteen minutes later, the enemy started heavy artillery shelling. They could see our positions clearly. Their fire was very effective, as the distance was short. In some cases, they could even use guns for direct firing. They could hit our bunkers, and some of our bunkers just blew up into smithereens.
In the meantime, in the darkness, unknown to us, the Chinese had crossed further up North and were coming behind our positions. This shelling carried on for about 45 minutes. Then we heard a bugle, and the shelling stopped. Instead, firing began from behind. When we realised that this attack was coming from behind us, we organised ourselves to turn behind and keep firing. But the advantage was to the Chinese, who were on top.
In spite of the fact that we were in an unfavourable position, we continued fighting. We could hold on for nearly another 45 minutes, by which time we had suffered extensive casualties.
I was not in communication with the battalion commander or anyone else. So I took whatever men I could to the Bde HQ. The Brigade Commander was there, and heard the firing. All the companies of the 2nd RAJPUT had been attacked simultaneously in the same manner, and that is why we suffered such losses. The next day, Brigadier John Dalvi, our commander, became a prisoner of war!
I too got a splinter wound during the shelling, but it was not incapacitating. One could keep walking around with it. Only, as it became cold, it hurt whenever I breathed. The story after that is very long and well known. We were in retreat, but a complex one. But the story of the battle of the 2nd RAJPUT in the 1962 war ends there. It was very hard to carry the wounded in that terrain: four to six men were needed to carry every wounded man.
What strikes me is that even though we experienced a setback in the war, we are fortunate to have soldiers of such calibre fighting for India. These men never held it against their country that she had nothing much to offer in terms of clothing, food, or equipment, but still expected great performances from them.
I found, in 1962, an army of soldiers willing to make the greatest possible sacrifices for their country, just for love and dedication to their land.
(Lt Gen (Retd) Ravi Eipe was 22, and had been in the army for three years, when he was thrust into battle with the Chinese in NEFA [now Arunachal Pradesh]. The Gen now lives in Bangalore)